“Faith is no reason.” That was the winning entry in the Center for Inquiry’s 2009 Blasphemy Contest and it’s been the headline to my Atheist Nexus profile page since I joined that site. I think that faith and reason are antithetical qualities; they have nothing to do with each other and are effectively mutually exclusive by their very nature. Upon recent reflection, I realized that there are other positive qualities which are at odds with faith and which show it to be the false value which it is. One of these is expressed in a modification of that first statement: “Faith is not curious.”
One of the goads which brought me to that above conclusion was a story told by Ayaan Hirsi Ali some time back. She had described how reading Nancy Drew mysteries had been part of her path out of Islam and toward atheism, and her point is wonderfully clear. The business of investigation, of picking up clues and evidence supporting a hypothesis almost requires curiosity as a matter of course. Pursued properly and with discipline, such a process can give rise to discovery, the “a-ha!” experience, which can be both intensely satisfying and educating. Such an attitude, however, can be deadly to a blatant falsehood, and doubtless this is what Ayaan discovered for herself when applying those principles to the quran.
Many years ago, I recall reading in Playboy magazine a story about how some Christian children were being discouraged from curiosity by their parents, that their studies should focus on the bible and not on external texts or courses which stimulated critical thinking skills. I remember being aghast at that story without fully understanding why, though the reason now is utterly apparent. As with Ayaan, Nancy Drew and the quran, digging past the surface of the bible would no doubt reveal the problematic nature we all know it has: the misogyny, the homophobia, the ludicrous, overblown violence against anyone and anything not associated with Yahweh. This also rather begs the question about that great off-Sunday church activity: bible study. Do you really suppose that the leader of such groups would direct his or her students to chestnuts such as Psalm 137:9 or Judges 19:22-30? Would they read about how Lot similarly offered his daughters to a mob in Genesis 19:8, never mind all the horrendous laws and punishments outlined in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? A thorough, chapter by chapter reading of the bible would likely create more problems than it solved, which is why I suspect in most cases, bible study consists of selected passages being read to the class, rather than a systematic exploration of the entire work.
In his speech during the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate, Stephen Fry mentioned something which I thought was both extraordinary and diabolical: that people in England were once put to death for owning a bible in English. In those times, most bibles were printed in Latin, a language not much known outside the clergy and therefore secured from the eyes of the rabble. Translating the bible to English opens the Pandora’s Box described above pretty clearly, an event which could potentially disempower those of the cloth, once all its secrets were revealed. Obviously, the King James and subsequent versions of the bible have survived, as has Christianity, yet the chinks in its armor remain available for anyone with the desire to read it.
Curiosity and religion are indeed a dangerous mix, at least for those religions which care to maintain themselves, though that is becoming considerably more difficult in modern times. In fact, the danger is multiplied by the advent of the internet and sites such as the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which gleefully offers not just the text but detailed analysis and categorization of its many faux pas. This may be why Isaac Asimov once said: “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”
Is it possible that, rather than killing the cat, curiosity killed the catechism?